I wanted to bump this one back up because there has been a recent conversation in the comics community concerning the very theme of this essay, but applied in a more general sense to female characters. Some links for your perusal - worth reading!:
Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad For Women
Reasons Why She May Not Be So Awesome
Strong Women Characters
(haha, we did this discussion first! XD)
Part One: "NOT A Doormat... Is She?"
Sexism in comics has long been a serious issue. As with most institutions, the faults and discriminations of society have been recreated in miniature within the medium and have subsequently undergone ferocious and justified criticism leading to slow, stumbling but reasonably steady evolution.
Whilst there is an imperative for the wide reader base of non-male identified people to be acknowledged and reflected through more inclusive and respectful representation and story-telling, this itself is not the only good reason for comics to dismantle sexism within their pages: to some extent, our attitudes and ideals towards the marginalised are influenced by the media we consume. Conscious and unonscious reflection of societal misogyny in media can both further shape and reinforce these attitudes.
So it is with good reason that depictions of women are harshly examined and assessed. With female readers growing increasingly more vocal, comics have felt pressure to reassess the ways in which they depict women, to varied outcome. Creators are being challenged to write women convincingly but are often unsure how to do this, resulting in a series of stereotypes and cliches which superifically create character under the guise of being “compelling” and “meaningful”. The venegeful warrior who was raped, anyone? Apart from the problematic issue of normalising sexual violence against women, it's hardly inventive. It's a method of creating “instant character depth” without putting in any of the hard yards in terms of portrayal and development.
Rape is a critical issue women face. It is not just women who are subjected to rape, but it is overwhelmingly so. Likewise, abuse is also a critical issue for women. Once again, women are not the only people who encounter abuse, but they constitute a very high per cent.
Due to this, the “abused woman” trope is all too easy to adopt and all too easily subjected to cliché and trivialising. It glibly claims to be tackling something of central interest “to women” whilst at the same normalising the mentality around it (“this is what happens to women”), and finally, it projects a veneer of character complexity with no serious effort necessary.
Harley Quinn, being a character entwined within an abusive relationship, is often the subject of discourse around the use of misogynistic tropes in comics: her relationship with the Joker is seen as something she must escape from, lest DC be sending “bad messages” to “female comic book readers” – often described as “young”, to boot.
Why it is assumed “young female comic book readers” are able to draw the line between fantasy and reality when it comes to donning a costume, committing crimes and murdering people, but not when it comes to the depiction of an obviously unhealthy abusive relationship is further reflective of the inherent double-standard often at play in these discussions.
It's a double-standard that is quite complex and often well-intentioned but ultimately simplistic and even damaging to the objective of seeing women treated equally within comics. Why should Harley lead a shining example and exactly what is the lesson anyway – does the young impressionable girl on the other end need to lose her mind before applying it?
There is some conviction Harley needs to leave the Joker for good because this is how she will “become empowered”. This conviction holds that this is the only means through which her character can “evolve”. There are generally named-feminist sentiments behind these positions: it is felt the depiction of a woman remaining in an abusive relationship is a highly misogynistic one to which the only appropriate feminist counter is her liberation from it. Harley's character traits of submissiveness and fawning adoration are also decried as essentially sexist constructs.
If handled badly, this could very well be true. But is it so in Harley's case? The issue here is not whether or not Harley is a feminist character, but whether or not she is truly a misogynistic one. And to determine that, we need to look beyond her relationship with the Joker and at her as a whole character. It is disregarded that the attitude toward women in abusive relationships being “unevolved” is infantilising. A significant part of the problem with viewing Harley as a limited personality for staying with the Joker is it enables us to ignore her considerable other traits, and this is diminishing itself.
When we are speaking about female characters in comics, particularly ones like Harley Quinn, the question to be asked is: what do we mean by feminism, anyway?
Do we mean that the character should have a specifically “feminist” agenda? And, if so, who gets to define what shape this agenda takes? In Harley's case, this would probably look like casting off the Joker once and for all, regaining her sanity and becoming a cool, collected and fiercely independent diva who never gets trod on. It's an idealised one but to force any of Harley's behaviour into ideals would be to remove her individuality in coping with these situations, which is a separate topic in itself.
Or, when we call for more feminist depictions of character, do we simply mean that these depictions be true to the ultimate objective of feminism in media: that women be considered whole and actual people, are depicted as three-dimensional, complex, full developed beings with a wide sope of human experience and behaviour?
The first is highly problematic. Feminism has been a crucial part of history and remains a crucial necessity. Feminist liberation had to become an organised force because women didn’t have the option to vote, work, study, or own property. Then there was the homemaker/housewife ideal women had to labour under.
But if the whole point was to create another organised ideal that women had to be forced into or fall short of then we just went in one big circle.
Unfortunately, this is what many female comic book characters are subjected to with the now-cliche trope of the independent, sassy and fierce chick who never lets herself be trod on, needs no one and can do anything - yet who usually ends up getting raped (or at least threatened with rape). It's lip service empowerment, another cookie-cutter idealised standard that actually inhibits women in comics.
But if the second is what we really aspire to, then Harley is already perfectly, beautifully there.
Harley is not, perhaps, a specifically “feminist” character. What Harley is, instead, is a real character, three-dimensional and rounded out. In her psychological foibles and questionable nature, she's treated the same as any other character although the particulars of her nature differ. She's saved from being simply a cliche or a stereotype by various dynamic and complex aspects of her personality. In this way, she embodies the ultimate objective of feminism: that women be seen as human beings.
After all, Harley was not created specifically to be an Abused Victim. Like the best characters, her evolution has happened naturally, resulting in a character who is simply human and multi-layered, touching and unsettling – no less because we can find so much of ourselves within her. As the creative team of BTAS developed her role into the Joker's girlfriend, it became evident that any relationship with the Joker, regardless of a person's sex or gender, was going to be abusive.
So then the question became: why does Harley stay?
In devising the answers to this, she continued to evolve and what she evolved into was a character who became a classic in a freakishly short period of time – a fan favourite amongst people of all genders. Why?
Self-deprecating, funny, crafty and sexy without being innuendo laden, Harley Quinn is a breath of fresh air within a medium still struggling to depict truly vibrant and unique female characters.
Wanting Harley to be “stronger” in response to her relationship with the Joker is missing the point: she was never conceived to be a Very Special Lesson. In fact, it would've been far more misogynistic to devise a female character who existed only to be abused and act as a teaching aid for the audience. In that all too common device, there is only pure objectification and dehumanisation.
It is also subjecting perceptions of female strength to a very limiting definition. Harley has incredible and varied strengths – but her strengths are more subtly realised than what we have become used to expecting from “strong female characters”; she also has frailites and flaws. The way she manifests these elements are what makes Harley one of the most endearing and relatable characters within the Batman Mythos and certainly defies any dismissal of her as a misogynistic character.
Harley's obsession is centred around a person, which makes her particular psychological affliction distasteful to many. One has to wonder if the same reaction would be invoked if the gender roles were reversed. Certainly, Harley's relationship with Ivy – which is also abusive – rarely ever falls under the same scrutiny. If it does, the decision is made that Ivy is “less abusive” and so therefore it is “better for Harley” - troubling attitude of abuse being quantifiable aside, it further illuminates the issues inherent to reader perception of female characters: Ivy is deadly and cruel. But because she has a vagina she could never be as bad as a man.
Yet at the same time and in appropriately perverse fashion, Harley's ovewhelming obsession is her advantage over the other Rogues: Selina can look at her jewels all day long, Ivy can wander amongst her plants, the Riddler can scrutinise puzzles and the Mad Hatter can host endless tea parties. Even Batman, the hero, is haunted by a memory.
Harley can reach out and touch, be touched by, see, smell and taste her tie to madness. Her insanity does not alienate her from human contact – it involves a flesh and blood being who can respond to and interact with her. There is no question she is inhibited by her insanity – yet it fulfills her as well. She can hold onto perception in a way few of the others can because the Joker is always out there, somewhere, and this fortifies her. Knowing this, she is able to stand independently, with less vulnerability to isolation and loneliness. She is not alone in her insanity.
Harley thrives on contact; she is not a character built for solitude and she doesn't want it. Her obsession with the Joker is her raison d'tere but so interactive is she that she is easily able to find company in his absence.
And Harley, being a clown and having adapted so readily into Joker's lifestyle of performance art, simply adores an audience. She is too large a personality not to. The company she keeps outside of the Joker is purely recreational and carefully selected – it could even be argued she finds in Holly exactly what she finds in Batman: interaction, reaction and an audience.
It's not only a reflection of how she operates independently of the Joker, it's behaviour that is highly calculating. Her ability to screen people and find those who will complement and react to her in the way she desires, as well as provide her with companionship, indicates a personality that understands itself very well. This is a manifestation of personal strength, an ability to discriminate that a character serving misogynistic stereotypes would be denied.
Further to this, Harley has always been a character who has persued what she wants, relentlessly and fiercely, never permitting obstacles to stand between her and her objectives: she entered a prestigious university on a gymnastics scholarship, she seduced her professor rather than let failure halt her dreams, she was prepared to exploit the mentally ill to make her name and rather than have a half-life with the Joker remaining simply his besotted psychiatrist, she gave it all up to be fully by his side.
Harley's goals are not so different from those defined as “ideal” for modern women: education, high-powered career, glamour and excitement, true love. The “having it all” aspirations of contemporary feminism are a deadly trap for many women who either burn out persuing superwoman status, or feel like a failure if they don't achieve it.
Harley, in many ways, took the path of least resistance – she wanted it all, and she wanted it on her own terms. If that meant cheating and conniving her way to the top, that's what she would do. If it meant giving up her sanity and her freedom, then she would do that too.
Her absence of any seeming moral quandary on these points is worthy of note: Harley is ultimately unburdened by gendered expectations of proving herself by doing it hard. She set her goals and decided she would achieve them at any cost. She assessed, made choices and prioritised – utlimately, she succeeded. That is strength. It's certainly independence. That Harley is given aspirations both serious and common demonstrates an interest in developing her personality beyond the superficial.
But likewise, so does the ultimate expression of herself as a Rogue without an overarching mission. It's in Harley's very childishness and frivolty that we most see the crux of her character: she is an individual led by whim and passion and by accepting nothing less than fulfillment of both.
Even such frivolous activities as becoming director of her own movie was pursued with whole-hearted ambition – Harley's objective was not to become rich or even to release it, but simply to realise her vision. She utilised the same drive that attained her more 'serious' goals in the past but it was wholly an exercise in self-indulgence.
Harley has a variety of ways of achieving her triumphs, from seduction to innovation to agility to beguilment to good old-fashioned smarts – or brawn. She's versatile and adapatable. She's multi-skilled and will use whatever she's got that best suits the moment. She's not particularly an individual who permits herself to be limited – not even when she's with the Joker. If that relationship is seen as something that stunts her altogether, it ignores the freedom she finds in life by his side as well as giving her no credit on her own merit whatsoever – the significant role she plays in both his life and his schemes is ignored. Harley's particular machinations are not inherently misogynistic; insisting she be entirely defined by what she does about them, is.
As Harley proves when she flawlessly carries out the theft of the Harlequin Diamond, she has the skills to play in the big leagues. Know-how is not what she lacks in terms of marching to the beat of her own drum as a Rogue in Gotham – it's that particular ambition.
In insanity, Harley truly became herself. Whilst her lifestyle is unhealthy and dangerous, it also liberated her. By casting off the normative constraints of society and the very ambition that had defined her life until that point, she unleashed herself upon an unprepared world. It's not that she comes to lack ambition, but now she focuses it in different ways. Whilst Harley is naturally a prisoner of her madness, as all of the Rogues are, it is also, in madness that Harley has freedom. The concerns, pressures and responsibilities of her former life ceased to exist. The only cause she really champions is mayhem, and that can be served by following.
Harley has no grand design: she uses her strengths to further another's goals more than for any personal purpose. She's in villainy because it's fun, because it's freeing - because she can do what she wants when she wants to, as she demonstrated a hearty predilection for prior to madness. With so loose an agenda it only makes sense then that she should fall into line behind another - so long as the laughs keep coming, she'll stick around. The Joker is excepted from this in being her obsession and love, but it's to the point that the wildest times of her life are also spent at his side.
She doesn't have the compulsion to lead because she lacks the desire to do so – but that's not to say she couldn't. It is, after all, Ivy who bungles the museum robbery. It's a fortuitous twist of circumstance that thrusts Harley into a position where she can once again play follow the leader rather than go it alone. She hired the Quintets to play top dog over and then did nothing with them. She had no purpose for them to serve, and she didn’t need them to do what she does. An embodiment of freedom doesn’t make sense as a dictator.
Harley is a character who is essentially frivolous and irreverant: in taking the back seat she also skirts the responsibility. It is not up to her to conceive and plan and plot, she can leave that to others and fulfill her orders when they come. In this way, Harley is not constrained by her pathology in the way that the other Rogues are: she commits crimes because they are fun, not because she is compelled to match wits, save the planet or study the impact of fear. If she really wants something, she takes it. Planning and plotting is wasted energy: if you really want Batman dead, why don't you just shoot him?
She has demonstrated, in her deciphering of clues, assembling of death traps, outwitting and outmanouerving of rogues and capes alike, all of it done with her own unique performative flare, that she's got what it takes to rank in the big leagues. But she rejects that, preferring her particular skills to be utilised by others. The pressure is off; there's not even any particular imperative to succeed. Harley's goofing swings from calculated to truly incidental: she's either playing or she considers it all such a game that a bungle here and there is of no consequence – she assumes others will forgive and move on as readily as she does, an assumption the Joker reinforces in his own inconsistency and one she adopts to success even with Ivy.
The idea that in this behaviour Harley has rejected strength or independence is a superficial reading. Once again, Harley pursues her own path in her own way – she doesn't conform to what she's told she should want by doctors, Batman and polite society but pursues what she actually wants in defiance of their pressure. And she does it in such a way that the weight of the world is not on her shoulders.
What’s more compelling with Harley is that it isn’t any code that keeps her from realising her full disastrous potential, it's childlike whims. When her ambition is at its peak, nothing can stop her, but it has to be aroused. She could destroy Gotham but she’d rather watch cartoons, or steal some candy, or daydream – or make a Hollywood blockbuster. She has the ability but chooses not to use it; and that's empowerment 101.
Better yet, it has not one thing to do with her vagina, which is obvious when you see the other ladies running around with agendas for conquest. This is not a character who embodies misogyny, in attitude or application.
None of this precludes the fact Harley undergoes pain and emotional distress or that her life is hardly a bed of roses at least half the time. In fact, that she persists with her lightheartedness, pleasure-seeking and general loving optimism despite the trauma she undergoes – which is not just abuse, but the loss of her freedom and the terrible things she both does and is witness to – is a testament to the ultimate strength of her character. One of Harley's defining traits is her tendency to overcome.
Nor does Harley especially suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Her effusiveness and open friendliness paint a picture of extreme self-confidence, as does her playful, flesh-showing wardrobe – which remains simple and modest enough that it never seems to be worn as a desperate bid for attention, but rather because she finds it comfortable and enjoys the way she looks in it. She never questions her own attractiveness – or her ability to get what she wants. She's smart, crafty and gorgeous – she knows it, and she uses it. From belting out a torch song to effortlessly ensnaring the Bat to making a big-budget movie to waltzing cockily into Arkham, Harley ultimately believes in herself.
This faith in not unwavering – like anyone, she has crises of self-doubt, questions her worth on occasion, has times of intense pain and humiliation – but she always regains it.
In the end, though she may believe the Joker is the epitome of all there can be, and though the force of his ego insists no one else is within his sphere, she still believes she is worthy of him. She knows she ranks and has the right to be by his side – not that he's her only option. Harley's very exploitiveness of others who find her appealing is testament to her knowledge she's desirable. She thinks Joker is God; she also thinks she's the right girl for God.
And even securely ensconced in her role of number two, she doesn't really behave as though she thinks anyone else is better or more skilled than she is, Rogue or Cape. This belief in herself no doubt plays a part in her staying with the Joker – she loves him, she's good enough and so these things combined will ensure it will all work out in the end. It's insane and delusional optimism, but on some level it reflects the underlying strength and resilience of her character – and certainly illustrates how she differs from more typically depicted examples, rooted in misogynistic reductionism.
That there remains a persistent lack of ethics is testament to her agency as an individual. That she can engage our sympathy and compassion despite this is proof of her depth as a character. Finally: she's nuts. Nothing about her is meant to be easy or neatly explained. Her nature is conflicting and complementing; that's part of her charm. If her pathos were too simply resolved she would fail to engage. Mentally ill or not, most of us wrestle with our inner selves, between intellectually knowing what's good for us and selecting what feels good for us.
The choice made is often with the latter; it is no less a choice for that. Harley is the ultimate example of this classic human foible.
But further than this, there is a double-standard at work in our desire for Harley to be the one Rogue to move beyond her obsession. All of Batman's Rogues have crippling fixations that literally dictate and rule their lives. Batman himself is a highly unhealthy individual who has a questionable quality of life due to his own twisted pathology.
No one argues for their rehabilitation. Is this double-standard based on gender? If it is, then that is itself sexist.
Certainly it defeats the capacity for a truly diverse representation of female characters. If the focus is only on the fact she is abused by and obsessed with a psychopathic clown, then a blind spot is developed in regards to the rest of who and what she is, already adequately demonstrated within canon material.
Essentially, she is reduced to nothing more than one aspect of her and whilst her consuming love for the Joker is a very large aspect of her, it is not the sum total of her parts.
If Harley, within reader perception, is only permitted to be a victim of abuse when with the Joker then everything she achieves and all the strength and individuality, skills and abilities she demonstrates whilst alongside him is denied – and ultimately this does her a disservice. It is this tunnel-vision that permits her to be written off as one-note or simplistic when she's one of the more truly developed and rounded characters in comics. In her fixation she's no more one-note than the Riddler, or Two-Face.
That her femaleness is a factor in deciding her obsession is repetitive and limiting is misogynistic itself.
In making Harley's pathology all about her gender we ignore how much of her machinations are outside or despite of gender. Her relationship with the Joker is not purely domestic; she is also in his employ. Nothing Harley does as a hench or a paramour is exclusive to women, or uses gender as a qualifier anymore then for Alfred or Robin. Who drives the getaway car and who plays the kazoo? It is the woman's job to rig the laughing gas bombs, the man's to drop off the clue to police headquarters?
Harley’s gone through the alternatives available to her, and chosen her path. That’s feminism, options and choice. They may not be ideal choices but she's a Bat-Villain: she's supposed to engage us but not serve as a role-model. Asking for her to do so is ultimately limiting her options: we can love her but we shouldn't want to emulate her and that goes far beyond her relationship with the Joker to plenty of her other behaviour – like killing people, for example.
Harley catches our attention because she's got a story to tell and that story involves personality, pathos, intelligence, skill, ambition, confidence and unrelenting determination. All of these elements have been deliberately and consciously injected by the creative team in order to realise her potential and illustrate how she serves as the character you best not underestimate, no matter how playful she appears.
She bamboozles, bewilders, dazzles and disarms – figuratively and literally. The very fact Harley is so developed both within and beyond her relationship with the Joker is testament to how her gender really has very little do with who she is – and that has everything to do with why she's truly such a strong female character.